Picture this: a really mean kid.
A kid who spends each day at school calling others names, like fat and loser. He chooses specific targets to publicly humiliate. He excludes people from the lunch table where their own friends sit, getting other kids to “vote out” someone who was once their friend, which they all do for fear of becoming the next target. His behavior is documented, but his parents take no responsibility, and the school needs more concrete evidence before they can suspend him. He faces no consequences, despite behavior that is hurtful, harmful and unacceptable.
In fact, that same year, he stands on the bimah and is welcomed with open arms as an adult in the Jewish community. His bullying is known to many, but he is given another title: Bar Mitzvah.
In most congregations, to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, there are many requirements to fulfill. A students must attend x number of services, master the prayers, learn Torah and haftarah portions, and write a speech about what he/she has learned during this process. We ask that students adhere to the guidelines that Judaism provides for living a moral and ethical life. But what about the children who go against what the Torah instructs us to do? If a student is a known bully, do we ignore that as long as his prayers are memorized and his speech pays lip service to kindness and being a good Jewish adult?
Judaism instructs us clearly that it is a sin to shame another person. Many Jewish children’s first lesson is the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself. And if you do something wrong, you HAVE to make it right. The Jewish system of teshuvah, repentance, provides explicit guidelines instructing us how to make right our wrongs. The essential step of teshuvah is taking responsibility and saying sorry for your actions.
When someone converts to Judaism we conduct a Beit Din (mini jury) as part of the conversion ceremony, to determine if the candidate for conversion is ready and that her intentions are good ones. What would it look like if we had a similar vetting for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah student? What if our clergy and tutors interviewed and even convened a Beit Din with their B’nai Mitzvah students before they began working with them? What would that look like? Would it involve other children – the peers of the bully?
Perhaps part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation should be letters of recommendation, in which the recommenders needed to answer some pointed questions about the student’s behavior and character. These recommendations could come from teachers, peers, community members. We could ask the Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates to answer questions in an essay that describes their character and intentions.
Does it seem extreme? Consider this story.
Recently, a high school coach from Utah suspended his entire football team because he caught wind that some of the players were involved in cyber-bullying. Those of us in the South know that you DON’T mess with football – but this coach did. His brave gesture was so against the norm that it made national news. This coach made examples of his players, showing that being a good person is the main requirement for any life experience and if this requirement is not met, then additional experiences and privileges are taken away. The football players could earn back their spot on the team through participation in community service.
This act not only had a direct consequence on the players but also offered a public message to the students that had been mistreated that they mattered, and that people were there to help them.
If a coach can do it, why can’t a rabbi? Or a teacher? We’re the ones who have the chance to show all kids they matter, and maybe even through teshuvah and attention, turn a bully into a mensch. What a mitzvah that could be.
Do you think bullies should be allowed on the bimah? Should a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student’s treatment of others be considered?
Early on in the academic year (and the Jewish New Year!), I thought it would be a poignant time to remind you of why we engage in religious education.
I know what some of you are thinking: “The Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, of course!”
Sorry, talmidim (students), but the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is just one step along life’s long journey of knowing and growing. Nonetheless, sometimes it is this step that not only confirms the road already taken but affirms the one still left to travel.
That was certainly the case for the recent Bar Mitzvah of Elijah Schulman. The ceremony took place last month, August 2013, at the nearly 150-year old congregation of Mishkan Israel in Selma, Alabama. Selma is where Abraham Joshua Heschel artfully articulated the indelible words: “While marching in Selma with Dr. King, my feet were praying.”
Elijah did not grow up praying in Selma, but his great-great grandparents, Max and Hattie Erdreich, did. Elijah and his family now live in Bethesda, Maryland. He chose Selma for his celebration because becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a confirmation of continuing along a path established by those who came before you, and an affirmation to help shape the path for those who will come after you.
When the day arrived, I was with Elijah and his family in the social hall of the temple before the service. I asked if he was ready to sign his Bar Mitzvah certificate, pledging his life-long commitment to study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. As Elijah’s pen took aim, his father, Andrew, interjected before it could hit its mark.
“What if he doesn’t agree? What if he won’t sign? Will he not be considered a Bar Mitzvah?”
I’d never been asked that question before, as – prior to this moment – the signing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificate had seemed merely functionary, a formality of the overall moment. So, I sat there… quiet… thinking. And, then, I answered:
“Sorry. No. I will not consider him a Bar Mitzvah, even with his Hebrew training. Because, being Jewish is more than knowing how to read Hebrew and lead a congregation in prayer. It takes a commitment to fill those words with meaning through our actions. So, if he chooses to not sign, he’ll still lead the service. He’s earned that right. But to truly be considered a son of the commandments, one has to be committed to living the words, not just reciting them.”
After a deep breath, as if inhaling the very weight of those words, Elijah signed. I don’t think there was ever a moment of hesitation; after all, in addition to preparing for the actual ceremony celebrating his Bar Mitzvah milestone, Elijah has already been fulfilling his commitment to the Jewish people through his actions.
The Mayor of Selma, George Patrick Evans, read a city resolution to Elijah during the service: “Elijah Schulman has already raised over $6,000 towards the preservation of this Selma Temple, and brought nationwide awareness of our great city… On behalf of Selma’s citizens, I present you with the Key to the City. May you always feel you’ve got a home here.”
That, my beloved talmidim, is the real reason you engage in religious education: not solely to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but to ensure a sense of belonging and responsibility to your Jewish community. For, in the near future, the keys of this home will quite literally be in your hands. The simple prayer of those who came before you is that you are willing to steer our congregations, our communities, and our world towards better and brighter things. We have great confidence you can and will do just that.
May God bless your educational journey!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
PS – If you would like to continue to help Elijah and the Mishkan Israel congregation in the restoration efforts of their historic building, you can email Mishkan Israel’s President, Ronnie Leet.